Humanitarian crisis worsening in Zimbabwe, warns WFP

HARARE - The humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe is deteriorating at a dangerously rapid pace, the UN World Food Programme warned today.
Reports of children dropping out of school and families resorting to ever more desperate coping mechanisms are increasing alarmingly. Levels of malnutrition are also worsening, while cases of hunger-related diseases like pellagra are becoming more frequent. At the same time, there is a growing concern that food imports by both the government and humanitarian agencies are falling far short of the amount required to feed the Zimbabwean people up until March.

The state-run Grain Marketing Board is responsible for distributing food countrywide but its capacity to import enough cereal is limited by a range of factors, in particular the government's crippling lack of foreign exchange.

WFP and its NGO partners did manage to distribute 20,000 MT of food to two million of Zimbabwe's most vulnerable people in October but much more needs to be done and yet WFP is struggling to access sufficient resources for the critical months ahead.

"We are approaching the very worst period of the crisis, when 6.7 million Zimbabweans will need food aid and yet WFP does not even have the resources to meet our target of 3 million beneficiaries in November. It is an extremely serious situation and it is only going to get worse," said Kevin Farrell, WFP Representative in Zimbabwe.

WFP faces a shortfall of close to 200,000 tonnes in Zimbabwe between now and March 2003, which threatens the agency's ability to reach all of its intended beneficiaries, especially as the numbers are expected to increase dramatically. From 3 million people in 35 districts in November, there are plans for WFP to distribute relief food to 5.8 million beneficiaries in 57 districts by January pending sufficient resources.

"We will all have to work non-stop over the coming months if we are to prevent millions of people from starving in Zimbabwe. The government, humanitarian agencies and the international community need to do everything possible to increase the flow of food into the country, otherwise the suffering that we are already seeing is only going to become more widespread and more acute," added Farrell.

Nationwide, families and children are taking extreme measures to survive. People are living on a wild fruit called hacha and banana tubers, which are poisonous. Others are reported to be eating another poisonous wild fruit, which in normal years is used for hair care products.

Household interviews by WFP field monitors reveal that many schoolchildren arrive at their classrooms each day without having eaten. Children fainting in school is now commonplace. Schoolchildren often have only tea without sugar for breakfast and wild fruits for lunch, unless their family receives food aid.

Many drop out of school altogether due to hunger. A large number of secondary school students are dropping out to work as casual labourers in the hopes of supporting their families. Most poor families eat one meal a day.

Faced with these reports and with the growing need around the country, WFP is scaling up its activities. However, the agency has met with a number of serious challenges since the emergency operations began in February, not least of which was having to gear up for a major crisis from scratch.

WFP's ability to distribute food was limited to start with, especially while the government of Zimbabwe considered the authorisation of several NGO partners. The matter is partly resolved, though WFP would still like to have several additional partners, given the enormous scope and complexity of the current crisis and the need to expand operations from 35 to 57 districts.

The discussion over the importation and distribution of genetically modified maize also slowed the entry of much-needed aid. The government has now agreed to allow WFP to distribute milled GM maize - a decision which has boosted the agency's capacity to deal with the crisis. However, milling can cause additional delays to the distribution process, by adding yet another step to an already extremely complicated logistical operation.

WFP has distributed over 80,000 MT of food since March 2002. However, in the next few months and despite other potential hurdles like fuel shortages, WFP needs to increase its cereal deliveries to around 65,000 MT a month, while the government must also rapidly increase its imports, since the economic situation is putting more and more people at risk.

The nationwide shortages of maize, bread, milk and sugar are seriously affecting members of Zimbabwe's working class, who do not meet the agency's selection criteria. The combination of commercial shortages, high parallel market prices and an accelerating rate of inflation - which is expected to reach 200% by the end of the year - is drastically reducing the capacity of those earning fixed incomes to feed themselves.

"The number of those in need keeps soaring and WFP cannot cope on its own. The gap needs to be filled both by the government, as well as by WFP and NGOs. Only a collective effort can hope to combat this crisis," said Farrell.

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency. In 2001, WFP fed more than 77 million people in 82 countries including most of the world's refugees and internally displaced people.

WFP Global School Feeding Campaign -- As the largest provider of nutritious meals to poor school children, WFP has launched a global campaign aimed at ensuring the world's 300 million undernourished children are educated.

For more information please contact:

Luis Clemens, Information Officer, WFP Harare, Tel +263-4-252471, Cell +27-83-4611794

Richard Lee, Information Officer, WFP Johannesburg, Tel. +27-11-5171686, Cell +27-83-4601787

Jennifer Abrahamson, Information Officer, WFP Johannesburg, Tel. +27-11-5171656, Cell. +27-83-3004954

Francis Mwanza, Senior Public Affairs Officer, WFP Rome, Tel. +39-06-65132623

Christiane Berthiaume, Information Officer, WFP Geneva, Tel. +41-22-9178564

Khaled Mansour, Information Officer, WFP New York, Tel. +1-212-9635196